I have never been religious. As a matter of fact, I am a proud atheist. Our family never went to church, which was unusual in the very tiny community that I grew up in because it had two churches. I am sure that our family was the topic of discussion over many of the community dinner tables when I was a child. Not only for the lack of church attendance but also because we were a family where the kids didn’t all share the same last name. Table-talk fodder for sure. We were a family who were allowed to think for ourselves and inevitably make our own decisions.
In grade school, we started the mornings with bible stories, Cain and Abel (two brothers that made mine look like saints), Joseph and his coat of many colours, Adam and Eve; and I loved them all because I loved all stories. I was nine when we were also covering cavemen and the indigenous peoples in the afternoon; and when our teacher, during the fifteen minutes of the day allotted to read aloud to the class, introduced us to The Mi’kmaq Legends of Glooscap. Glooscap, the great chief and creator, made the world inhabitable by arranging the landforms and creating all the animals and birds from the dirt. I thought these legends were wonderful. They were about our area and the original people who inhabited it. I will tell you that I was enthralled by them. As an adult, after moving back to Nova Scotia, I purchased locally published books containing these legends .
The nine-year-old me, a quiet kid with a very active imagination, had cavemen–aided by colourful maps and photos and timelines from National Geographic, God and his son Jesus–the standard North American visual concepts of these, and Glooscap–the magnificent giant of the Mi’kmaq people, keeping me awake at night. Even though my family didn’t attend church, I had heard about God’s creation of man from the moment I started attending the rural school system. The details, repeated over and over, had no other option than to become embedded into my consciousness, no other option than to become fact because they were expected to become fact. I don’t know how she managed it but that teacher introduced her students to other options, which to me, because our family had no holy-ingrained-inflexible ideas, seemed just as viable.
I still think of this teacher because she probably wished that she had never ventured into these conflicting topics on the day that I asked her a question that was rattling around in my head along with God, Glooscap the some cavemen. It was a question that the two of us would remember forever. “If the cavemen were the first people on earth, who were Adam and Eve?”
As an adult looking back at this moment, I know I put the poor woman on the spot. Mrs. Hubley, who was set to retire the end of that year, didn’t quite know how to answer my question and was probably not satisfied with her answer; but given the classroom venue and the highly religious population, could only say so much. I recall the hesitation in her voice when she said these words, “I believe they were the first white people.” Even the nine-year-old me, knew there was something not right about this statement.
But doesn’t this statement say it all. Doesn’t it sum up the attitude of a privileged white population. A population who thought themselves as singled out from others for a better destiny. A powerful population who always thought of their God as the one and only rightful creator and had never been challenged on their beliefs. Whose to say that one belief is right and another is wrong? Who has the right to judge that one group of people deserve better treatment than another? Nobody, that’s who! But as we know, religious interpretation, like everything else, is very subjective. Those in charge of the situation make the interpretive rules. We only have to look in the history books to prove this point, and we don’t have to look very far back. In some cases we don’t have to look back at all. Just watch the news.
In light of the findings of hundreds of children buried in unmarked graves around residential schools here in Canada–schools funded by the government and run by the church, I ask again, what right did they have to do such things? Genocide is a strong word. As is hatred. But what else do you call this? I struggle with this because I have a big problem with hypocrites. I constantly hear people claiming that their religious group, the Catholic Church for one, is charitable and forgiving. Hell you can commit atrocities then repent on your deathbed and get into heaven. Your very own get-out-of-jail-free card. They claim that their God loves everyone. Tell that to the hundreds of children who died. And the hundreds of parents who never saw their children again. And to the survivors who were abused. To the thousands who lost their culture and the ability to live in a meaningful way. To the generations who didn’t know how to parent their own children because they couldn’t cope with the memories of their own childhood. The church has a lot of explaining and apologizing to do.
I may not be religious but I have values. Strong values, which is why I find this so difficult. I have read many indigenous-authored books and I have been aware of this tragic history through their stories and essays, how it underlines their existence and has forever challenged and changed them. But the details continue to get worse and only those who have survived really know. I cannot put myself in their shoes.
I feel shame over the recent residential school findings because I should, just like every other privileged-white-middle class Canadian should. For all the wrongs done to indigenous people by both the Canadian Government and the Church, I am sorry. Your lives are valued. Your history is real. Let it no longer be erased.
Thank you for reading.
Photo: Glooscap – Wikipedia,